Leading Change — Turn Complainers into Campaigners

Learn how to turn your greatest adversaries into your strongest advocates.

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Everyone, at some time in their career, has met a complainer. Perhaps you work with one now. The complainer’s title is pretty self-explanatory; they criticize, lament, and groan more than they smile. They have no problem identifying faults, even when there are few. They highlight gaps, focus on risk, and generally find issue with any attempts to legitimately improve work processes.

Leaders often dread the complainer. The leader’s responsibility is to gain alignment and engagement among team members; having an individual that vocally resists these efforts is frustrating under any circumstances. Many leaders instinctively work to remove complainers from their teams; others simply ignore them. Some assert authority and challenge the complainer. Others yet make concessions to assuage concerns.

Most look at the complainer as a negative or non-value adding member of the team. Complainers earn a reputation quickly; usually, it’s not a positive one. They disrupt the status quo. They shift accord to discord. These individuals are generally perceived as making change efforts more difficult than they need to be. At the extreme, these team members become loathed rather than liked.

Silent versus Vocal Complainers

Turning complainers into campaigners is often viewed as more art than science, but through proven approaches, even the most vocal complainers can be converted to program champions. The first step in converting complainers is to identify them. Complainers fall into two categories; vocal complainers are the most obvious type. They readily express their concerns and share them in meetings, conversations, and emails. They challenge others, sometimes in a very aggressive manner. They have no problem with asserting the complainer role and taking an opposing stance in discussions. Leaders and team members alike can identify vocal complainers without much effort.

Silent complainers are difficult to identify and present the greatest risk to any team initiative. These individuals don’t agree with the change, or have intense reservations, but they aren’t vocal. They don’t follow the requirements of new programs, they don’t buy-in, and they don’t champion the change. They won’t jump up and down to tell you that they don’t agree with the program. Instead, they internalize the negative stance. These individuals are ninja complainers; they hide their feelings but subvert the change effort.

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Silent complainers can be rooted out through a few key tactics. The first approach is asking the team to provide anonymous feedback on the change initiative. While this approach won’t identify the silent complainer directly, it will allow you to discover whether you have a silent complainer on the team. A second discovery tactic is completing confidential 1 on 1 interviews. These sessions enable team members to speak up in a safe environment where they may not otherwise share concerns in a group setting. Lastly, auditing workflow compliance is another way to root out silent complainers. These individuals often subvert the new process in favor of old ways of working. If you can’t get them to share their concerns, you can usually identify their lack of compliance by auditing their workflows.

Conveying ‘the Why’

Team members will naturally resist change if they don’t understand ‘the why’. If someone doesn’t understand the reason for a change, they are going to be reluctant to buy-in. Without conveying ‘the why’, there is no call to action; there is no reason to disrupt the current, and comfortable, way of doing things. There is no reason to change.

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In leading change, you must convey ‘the why’ to begin converting complainers. Many complainers find fault in change initiatives because the reason for change hasn’t been clearly communicated. Whether it’s a client requirement, a drive to improve profitability, or an effort to reduce work effort, every change has ‘a why’. If you can’t clearly convey that why message to the end user, you will always have complainers lingering on the team.

Beyond ‘the why’, you must also identify ‘what’s in it for me’. If you want a complainer to disrupt their workflow, there must be a benefit. Every valuable change initiative presents at least one benefit for the end user. Do your part to clearly communicate and share these benefits to get complainers on board and working toward the same end goal.

Engaging the Complainer

Once you have identified them, and conveyed the why’, the next step in converting complainers to campaigners is engaging with them. This approach is often a bit arduous for those who dislike conflict but it’s utterly necessary. You must confront the complaints to further the conversion process.

When you take an opportunity to listen to the concerns of complainers, you will find that concerns typically fall into 1 of 3 categories:

  • Fear of change
  • Deficiencies (perceived or real)
  • Lack of conviction (perceived flavor of the week)

Let’s leave the first category aside for now. If a complainer has identified a valid deficiency, work with them to craft a solution to the problem. This enables the complainer to own a part of the initiative; this engagement will increase the complainer’s likelihood to champion the success of the program if their suggestions or ideas are incorporated in the program structure.

If a lack of conviction is the problem, position management messaging at center stage in all meetings and updates. Identify the investment being made, long-term program plans, and long-term goals. If change is constant and fleeting within your organization, you will breed hoards of complainers out of continuous frustration with a lack of initiative longevity.

Circling back to the first point, fear of change is more difficult to overcome than other concerns. Fear can be addressed by making incremental change and engaging the end user in constant focus groups to engage their input. The second approach, and the most successful, is education. People fear what they don’t understand. Provide them with a platform to build upon and that fear begins to disappear. As a child, not knowing if there was a terrifying monster under your bed was concerning, to say the least. When someone turned the lights on and showed you that the monster didn’t exist, that fear subsided. Education is that light; without it, fear will always persist to some degree.

Making the Conversion

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The next step in making the conversion from complainer to campaigner is by tasking complainers with a champion role. Build responsibility for some facet of initiative success into the roles and responsibilities of the complainer. Once they understand ‘the why’, and they have been engaged in initiative development, deployment, and sustainment, task them with an element of program success.

Consider tasking these individuals with training and coaching other team members on change processes. If the complainer is responsible for educating and making advocates out of others, they must buy-in to be successful in their role. This approach will also enable complainers to work through the details of the initiative in great depth, as they must be well versed to educate and mentor others. This approach also helps repeatedly reinforce ‘the why’, which improves buy-in over time.


Complainers can be assets, but only if you convert them. Complainers that can’t be converted will continuously derail any change initiative efforts. One bad apple always spoils the bunch. But complaining isn’t always a negative. Complainers often have valid points and concerns; by working with them you can usually improve your initiative. Further, by engaging the end user in program development, deployment, and sustainment, you can make a campaigner out of even the most vocal complainer.

Woman in construction. Entrepreneur. Writer. Student; teacher. Probably jet lagged.

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